The photo below explains my ambition. I’m trying to fill this shelf with books I’ve written. I want an interesting life which requires doing unusual things and having unusual goals.
When I quit my first career as a tech manager in 2003, I wanted a simple reminder for my goal of having a writing career. Books had changed my life many times and I was most interested in the challenge and reward of authorship. Since I saw the shelf many times a day (it’s to my right as I type this) I decided it was the perfect spot. Filling it with finished books gave me a visual reminder to focus on. When my first book was published in 2005 I put this simple photo above on the author bio page.
It’s a cliche for Americans to swoon over Chinese symbols, and often they mean things very different from what we think (As my Chinese speaking friend Jeff likes to joke, “Uh, that symbol tattooed on your arm doesn’t mean Great Love, it means soup dumplings.”)
I found this card at Uwajamaya in Seattle around the time I quit my job. I liked what it claimed the symbol meant (see below). I love the quiet strength of trees and it matched how I needed to be to reach my goal. The I Ching references the symbol as Hexagram #47, which has various meanings, including the one on the card. I’ve learned in common Chinese the symbol/word is often used to means confinement (one of the other meanings suggested by the I Ching), trouble or sleepy more than overcoming, but I don’t care. The symbol has adorned my shelf for so long it means something specific to me regardless of its common meaning.
Years later I’ve written 5 books and the shelf looks like this (see below). I have a long way to go. Translated editions don’t count, as that’d be cheating. I’ll need to write about 25 books to fill the shelf which will likely demand most of my life. That’s fine. I have nowhere else to go and no goal as meaningful as this one.
Although it’s a volume goal, I have no interest in writing bad books. I also have no interest in writing unnecessarily long ones. My popular essay collection Mindfire is comprised of revised essays from this blog, but I’d feel it was cheating if most of the shelf was recycled material. One book in five seems a fine pace for compilations and such.
Occasionally I’m offered very nice conventional jobs where I’d have more security and income, but then I look at the shelf. Security and income are desirable, but they have limited bearing on my ability to fill the shelf. So as tempted as I might be, I say no (The Year Without Pants was a notable exception). Writing and speaking are my only means of income.
Another reason I like this goal is writing books demands many things:
- Polymathic thinking
- Connecting with friends and colleagues
- Making new friends and relationships
- Commitment to an idea
In the process of writing a book I’m forced to do many things in line with the kind of life that I want: An interesting one. As long as I focus on the shelf, many other good choices are forced naturally.
Most authors repeat themselves, writing the same kind of book repeatedly. The marketplace rewards familiarity and a writing life is hard enough, so I understand why it’s common. Many of our most popular authors publish in narrow ranges. This is wise and lucrative, but ultimately limiting (the worst are creativity authors who exclusively write about creativity, which is not very creative). I’m taking the opposite approach for as long as I can. I’ve never written a sequel, because we all know how underwhelming sequels are. I have no shortage of ideas for books and I’ll keep moving forward until I’m forced to be more conservative, if that’s even possible.
I want to be a writer in the largest sense. I want to be an artist. I want to take big risks with my skills, which will help me discover exactly what abilities I have or don’t have and what good they can do in this world.
Last year I got my first and only tattoo. It serves as an additional reminder to me about why I’m here and what my goal is. I’m a writer which means I work with my hands. I wanted to keep the symbol with me, near my hands, all the time.
That’s my story. If you see me speak and notice the tattoo, now you know why it’s there and what it means.
Follow As I Chase The Goal
Any encouragement is encouraged. Praise the crazy writer man! And thanks for supporting my work. Best wishes to you on your own goals.
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